This chapter begins by exploring how battlefield technologies massively augmented the ability to see war while simultaneously helping to usher in an era where physical presence was not only unnecessary but in many ways an increasing liability. Certain types of war imagery were more clearly observed than ever before, while participants on the front continued to be placed ever further away from the actual sights/sites, helping to create the illusion that it was all just an illusion. As the newest generation of "smart" weapons took center stage, this perceptual foreshortening and concomitant physical distancing served to reduce human agency by placing the organic materiel on the periphery of decision-making loops, feeding the sense of unreality members of the press and the academy so frequently associated with the Operation of Desert Storm.

Making strategic sense of the various new ways of seeing demanded far more narrowly focused attentional styles. It was no longer possible for any single individual to process the wealth of data generated during battle. Elaborate divisions of labor became standard operating procedure. For example, to successfully hone in on bomb targets in the 1990s required far more than a single pilot flying over the general geographic area of the enemy and opening a chute, it often required at least two pilots, one to fly the plane through the dead of night while attending to a tremendous amount of electronic instrumentation for navigational purposes, and another to sight the target and fly the bomb to its point of impact. This kind of narrowly focused attentional shift, in conjunction with war's ubiquitous electronic screening, gave rise to the ironic distance repeatedly referenced in so many places, and provides the subject matter for the second section of the chapter.

In one of the more noteworthy changes taking place during the Gulf War, the prime-time for fighting migrated from daytime, where human vision is most capable, to nighttime, where human vision was most limited. This shift was made possible due to technologically enabled night-sights of various sorts, sights which reigned supreme as Allied forces traversed the desert terrain. There was no longer any respite as the space/time of war continued to expand and accelerate. Whereas in the past night had often been an unwelcome foe for the troops with the advantage--battles were forced to come to a halt as darkness rendered opponents' targets invisible, giving the enemy much needed rest and the opportunity to regroup and restrategize--within the context of the Persian Gulf it had become the Allies' best ally. The third and final section of this chapter looks more closely at how these perceptual expansions helped combatants perceive the accelerated destruction they were engaging in as little more than a high-tech videowargame.


Gathering reliable information about enemy location, battle strategy, and destructive potential has always been a necessary element for waging successful war, and, needless to say, war has always provided plenty of incentive for technological developments. McLuhan, has noted, like many others, how war is the principal motivational force for the expansion of Science at every level (1968:122). In Operation Desert Storm, due to revolutionary advances in micro-electronic warfare technologies, military intelligence gathering practices had far more scope and were far more sophisticated than anything used before. The command and control of the war enjoyed by the Allied forces had everything to do with a radically augmented field of vision. They could see in entirely new ways. The eye of the human had been fused with, and extended through, the eye of the machine. The proximity of the organic eye to the object of its gaze was no longer required in order to allow effective action and response based on the experiential vision of some-thing in real time.

For example, just think about the scope of the vision enabled by computer generated displays of troop and vehicle movements on battlefields hundreds of miles away from each other, or the knowledge of Iraq's physical geography provided by satellite imaging technologies which were used to document and catalog virtually every square-inch of Iraqi terrain (not to mention the ability to rapidly shift perceptual fields in order to see from multiple points of view--cockpits, tankpits, satellites, computers, televisions, and so forth), compared to the scope of vision enabled by a single soldier's eye. To effectively control the body of the enemy, and recuperate the territory that body occupied, we had to be able to see it, to visualize it, to render it observable; it was a diseased body, and one in need of vigorous cleansing, quickly, before it infected those around it, that got plastered on the pages of the printed press, splashed upon the screens of the television, and projected into cybernetic spaces.

Very little of what the military thought they needed to see remained hidden from the Allies in this war, very little remained impenetrable to their technically afforded sight. Long before this war even began, the U.S. military was engaged in running software simulations of potential battlefield scenarios in an effort to stamp out surprise. In October 1990 Schwarzkopf revealed in a USA Today interview that the U.S. military, and he in particular, was prepared for war in the Gulf well over a year before it actually broke out because he programs "possible conflicts with Iraq on computers almost daily ... In fact, Schwarzkopf sponsored a highly significant computer-simulated command post exercise which was played in July 1990 under the codename of Exercise Internal Look '90" (Der Derian 1992:184). Computer aided simulations used to anticipate enemy response capabilities were incredibly sophisticated and played a critical role in preparing U.S. forces for what had become a war driven by electronic systems.

What was even more curious than the simple fact that computer simulations of battle were being increasingly used in preparation for the real thing, was the carry-over effect that proficiency in one sphere of activity was presumed to have in another. The following passage provides testimony to the perceived relevance of (and collapse of the difference between) one's skill at running battlefield simulations translating into one's skill at running maneuvers on an actual battlefield: "When Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, the war game specialist who put Exercise Internal Look together, Lt. General Yeosock, was moved from fighting "real-world scenarios" in Florida to taking command of all ground troops except for the special forces under Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia" (Der Derian 1992:184).

As the war shifted from preparatory to participatory, from hypothetical to actuarial (though this shift was never really crystal-clear), the Allies' electronic advantage and the methods used in maintaining that advantage became more apparent. It was increasingly clear that effectively waging war was dependent not only upon proficient strategic and tactical planning using those systems before, during, and after the actual fighting, but at preventing the Iraqi military from being able to use theirs. The Allies' electronic warfare systems and operations were engaged in a whole-hearted effort to not only disrupt, but to destroy Iraq's C[3] (command, control, and communications) capabilities.

A wide range of sophisticated weaponry was used to defeat Iraqi air defenses. Over a thousand air craft were deployed in the Gulf and had to be orchestrated by the Air Force using complex systems that coordinated intelligence gathered from various sources. Electronic cameras were placed aboard photoreconnaissance satellites (350-600 miles above the earth) to transmit real-time images to stations on the ground, eavesdropping satellites intercepted radio communications, radar satellites with the ability to see enemy installations at night and through clouds up to 1,200 miles away tracked troop movement, missile warning satellites constantly scanned the Gulf region from 22,300 miles above the equator (with an infrared telescope able to detect the heat from a missile's exhaust within seconds of a launch), and radar surveillance planes watched and listened for radar and radio signals in order to locate Iraqi deployment stations. All of this data was then pooled and made sense of at the command control centers, at which point military targets would be identified and assigned (U.S. News & World Report, January 28, 1991:30; Time February 4, 1991:47).

As General John Galvin put it: "Schwarzkopf was able to dismantle the electromagnetic spectrum [so that] he effectively closed Saddam's eyes and ears. He therefore made Saddam less mobile, less able to react, less able to gain intelligence--basically, less able to orchestrate and put the air, land, and sea [elements] together" (Isby 1993:157). Thus whether through the use of electronic support measures (i.e., collecting and analyzing electronic emissions from the air, land, and sea), electronic countermeasures (i.e., actively jamming enemy signals or passively dropping decoys like radar-reflecting aluminum or infrared flares from aircraft to reduce radar detection), or electronic counter-counter measures (i.e., electronic emission control), the Allied forces controlled the battlefield through control of the electromagnetic spectrum (Isby 1993).

For the soldiers on the battlefront, and the public on the homefront, human perception and cognition had been radically expanded through technological device. The representation of human bodies, at least bodies of a certain type, had been successfully kept from view, but the extensionality of human subjectivity via electronic artifice was made blatantly apparent; we could easily see it, we just couldn't think it very well. Saddam's eyes and ears really were technical transmitters and receivers, as were ours. To close Saddam's eyes and ears by technically jamming the systems providing him with sight and sound was no mere metaphorical dismembering, it was a literal dismembering of his inorganic body parts. In theory, things were no different for the Allies, but in practice, they were since this was anything but a technologically balanced campaign. We could observe enemy movements, penetrate their defenses at will, and retain almost hegemonic control over the imagery. Had this technological imbalance been flattened out the war would have been a far different experience--yet even still, when framed within the contours of a subjectivity that separates the human from the machine, it would have continued to seem unreal.


During the first generation of smart weaponry in the 1960s, the miniaturization of electronic components had reached the integrated circuit stage allowing computerized guidance and navigation devices to be built into projectiles. A new generation of bombs was introduced that worked by having a human operator target a sight with a laser beam that the weapon's on-board guidance system would then lock onto and follow, if properly led by the pilot, until point of impact. The next stage in the development of smart weaponry was represented by the "fire-and-forget" bombs that had acquired enough intelligence to be able to lock onto their targets automatically and depended upon human participation only at the time of the actual launch (De Landa 1991:43).

A couple of the more popular fire and forget bombs used in the Persian Gulf were the AIM-9 Sidewinder which homes in on infrared emissions given off by the engines of enemy aircraft, and the AIM-7 Sparrow which zeroes in on radar beams reflected from the pilots' sighting mechanism. While both of these missiles possess what could be considered "sight" or "intelligence" due to their independent tracking abilities, they provided nowhere near the visual feedback of the Slam Seeker which had a TV camera mounted in the nosecone that transmitted images to the aircraft weapons officer who could then use a joystick (appropriately named if judged by the pilot response to the successful destruction of Iraqi targets) to fly the bomb to its point of impact, or the Tomahawk TLAM-C. The Tomahawk gets launched from the sea, travels 550+ miles per hour at low altitudes for up to 600 (some estimates put it closer to 800) miles, and uses a fish-eye camera as it approaches its target to ensure that it detonates within 10 feet of the spot previously mapped by satellite and digitally stored in the missile's computer (U.S. News & World Report January 28, 1991:31). As a Newsweek reporter glowingly relayed: "In Baghdad, one Western correspondent watched in awe as a Tomahawk passed overhead, seemed to pause for a moment--and turned left, toward the Ministry of Defense. Who needs pilots when missiles have minds of their own?" (February 18, 1991:38).

Another technology that made its debut in the Israeli/Lebanon dispute in 1982 and was used quite extensively in the Persian Gulf War in order to provide information about troops and targets was the remotely piloted vehicle: "This toy craft ... was a veritable Tsahal's eye fitted with TV cameras and thermal-image systems"; as it flies over enemy territory it supplied thermal-graphic images of troop and vehicle movement for military analysts sitting at their video consoles hundreds of kilometres away (Virilio 1989:88-89).

The image of the killer robot, once confined to the world of science fiction, is increasingly becoming a reality (De Landa 1991:1). While bombs and missiles like the Sidewinder and the Tomahawk, or video-fitted and thermal imaging systems like the Scout, possess and enable a certain vision and were heralded as the first generation of truly smart weapons, they are hardly intelligent or autonomous in the more traditional (anthropomorphic) sense of being able to learn from mistakes and adjust their actions accordingly. The smart weaponry that was used in the Gulf was used in what De Landa (1991:1) refers to as an advisory capacity (acting as an information agent in order to make the job of the human operator easier) as opposed to executive capacity (taking on decision-making responsibility irrespective of a human operator).

Of course the simple fact that truly autonomous weaponry--weaponry capable of executive decision-making--was not available for use in the Gulf does not mean that the successful research and development of autonomous weaponry isn't a military wet-dream. The work that has been done with BRAVE 3000, for example, is a pretty good indication of at least one small part of the military's high-tech vision of the future. The BRAVE 3000, while still not completely autonomous, demonstrates enough artificial intelligence to enable it to act independently in a predatory fashion. The BRAVE is a jet-powered drone that actively searches for enemy radar stations at cruising speeds of up to 400 miles per hour; once it finds one it intentionally triggers an enemy radar signal so it can home in and destroy it, in a sense "deciding" on its own (De Landa 1991:128).

As weapon sight continued to extend human sight on the battlefield, as technologically enabled imagery continued to bombard the battlefront and the homefront, in many ways defining the parameters through which the Gulf War was experienced, as the reproduction of war was skillfully disseminated through official channels, channels responsible for determining the basis of coverage, and as responsibility for the death and destruction of combat appeared to shift from human operators to machinic ones the fires feeding the sense of unreality so frequently discussed and disparaged in the press and the academy were furiously and in some cases enthusiastically fanned. It was as if humans were no longer doing the killing or being killed, machines were. But this repeatedly reproduced dichotomy between human and machine led to a tremendous amount of conceptual confusion, and prevented many critics from more productively theorizing this war. It was not very easy, and even less comfortable, to see oneself as part and parcel of the killing machines one presumed to be separate from. But it is only by refusing to presume this artificial separation that we can begin to see our responsibility for, and implication in, the experiential outcome of our technically extended capacities.

The chaos traditionally associated with war was supplanted by an efficiently micromanaged and technocratically controlled campaign where the mobilization of the organic body took a back seat to the mobilization of the inorganic one (though the organic was still along for the ride). Even the language available for articulating wartime activities reflected this movement. The war generated its own lexicon, with acronyms and euphemisms becoming the dominant mode of expression not only of high-tech systems--ECM (Electronic Counter-Measures), FAE (Fuel Air Explosives), GCI (Ground Control Intercept), MBT (Main Battle Tank), TFW (Tactical Fighter Wing), HARM (High-speed Anti-Radar Missile), NCB (Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological), BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment), target-rich environment, and so on--but of human ones as well--MIA (Missing In Action), WIA (Wounded In Action), KIA (Killed In Action), HRP (Human Remains Pouch), BCR (Battlefield Casualty Replacement), PONTI (Person Of No Tactical Importance), collateral damage, etc.--(Index on Censorship 1991:9)[1].

Operation Desert Shield -> Sword -> Storm, and the massive amount of acronymic and metaphoric play that surrounded and defined it, had quite a historic precedent. In a fascinating study of Vietnam-era military pilots describing how narrative identity was constructed as a result of tremendous technological and psychological changes in the practice of warfare, Stanley Rosenberg found that a distinctive feature of masculine "warrior identity" was the linguistic fusion between self and technology. And when it came time to label the main turning points during the air campaign in the Gulf, Operations "Flaming Dart," "Rolling Thunder," "Linebacker I," and "Linebacker II" (1993:43-45)--the key signifiers for bombing periods in North Vietnam--provided an abundance of idiomatic reserve. The biggest difference was that, in the Gulf War version, these linguistic turns had become much more prominent, and popular; and the technical systems developed in the time-gap between the wars had considerably "advanced," facilitating such puritan linguistic constructions of self and machine.

But the increasing precedence of, and reliance upon, euphemistic acronyms for metaphorically describing various technologies and outcomes of war should not be taken to mean that such usage signals a separation of the sign from what it signifies, but that certain groups, for various reasons, have a vested interest in doing signification differently, and this movement and the directions it takes is the result of the constant interplay between technical development, metaphorical association, and human consciousness. Like McLuhan said: "All media or technologies, languages as much as weaponry, create new environments or habitats, which become the milieux for new species or technologies" (1968:190). What we need to do now is look a lot more critically at our species-becoming.


In many ways Operation Desert Storm was about the Allies' ability to gain control of their nocturnal emissions. As the dominant visual reproductive mode of the war shifted from print, to photograph to electron, from sequentially ordered and analogic, to fragmented, dispersed and digital, human perception was fundamentally altered. Although the human eye was still necessary for the initial act of perception and the subsequent containment of the field of view, it lost its "immemorial privilege" and became objectified as the eye of the technological machine ... (Sobchack 1993:6). Take for example the experience of the modern fighter-pilot on a typical bombing-run. Looking up:

[The pilot] sees the digital display (opto-electronic or holographic) of the windscreen collimator; looking down, the radar screen, the onboard computer, the radio and the video screen, which enables him to follow the terrain with its four or five simultaneous targets, and to monitor his self-navigating Sidewinder missiles fitted with a camera or infra-red guidance system... On the F-16 'AFTI' ... the pilot never touches the controls but navigates by voice. In return, an on-screen display keeps him informed of his flight plan and 'firing plan' and throws up on the windscreen the anticipated acceleration and countdown time, as well as the kind of manoeuvres that the pilot will have to execute. For the firing operation, the pilot has a special sighting helmet linked to a laser and infra-red targeting system; all he has to do is fix the target and give a verbal instruction for the weapons to be released (Virilio, 1989:84-87).

The pilot's perceptual and cognitive experience of the enemy is dependent upon multiple high-tech screens, screens that radically extend human ocular awareness. Accurate perception requires obsessive attention be given to electronically mediated representations of battles, battles that would otherwise, in many cases due to height, distance, weather, or time of day, remain invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude and effectiveness of night-bombing-runs over Baghdad provides powerful testimony to this point. It was Vietnam where the darkness of night was overcome by Americans who "had recourse to pyrotechnic, electrical and electronic devices, most of which employed light intensification, photogrammetry, thermography, infra-red scanning, and even specially invented infra-red film" (Virilio 1989:82). But it was the Persian Gulf where night-time truly became the prime-time for waging war, and this was a remarkable turn.

The dark of the night has long been used as a cloak for various types of weapons and troop movement, but only in very limited ways--fortification building, marches, and (rarely) attack. In the Gulf the most intensive bombing campaigns in the history of war were waged on dark, clear, moonlit or moonless nights. Night vision systems allowed air and ground forces free reign over the desert landscape. If something eluded the Air Force reconnaissance missions then U.S. commando teams wearing night-vision goggles were parachuted deep into Iraqi territory to ride around on camouflaged motorcycles and dune buggies to locate missile launchers for F-15E bombers (which can make objects visible in pitch black at distances of up to seven miles) to come back and blow-up (Newsweek March 18, 1991:32; Time January 28, 1991:31).

Occasionally a soldier would comment on how such night-goggled scenes of the battlefield made war seem rather removed and uncomfortably unreal. More striking than these few and far between moments of relatively somber self-reflection were the majority of soldiers, more frequently represented through the various channels of the media, who simply hooted and hollered at the successful targeting and devastation of enemy sights/sites; and others who casually described bombing activities, as one Marine Harrier pilot did after dropping three thousand pounds of cluster bombs near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, using phrasings like: "You're coming down the pike, hauling the mail ... and you're staring at that bad boy, and you roll in and hit the pickle and get outta Dodge" (Rosenberg 1993:44). U.S. Air Force Commander Dick White summed up what fighting under these conditions was like in the following way: "It's almost as if you were turning on the light in the kitchen at night and the cockroaches begin to run, and we kill them" (Brockman 1991:750).

It was the mass-mediated representation of this mood--displayed first on the battlefront and then redisplayed, time and again, on the homefront--that gave so many theorists such a noticeable charge. Not only had the enemy been disembodied (literally as well as metaphorically) through strategic use and control of technology, but that disembodiment happened at far greater speed and at far greater distance, and was much more pleasurable for Allies, and their Allied, to engage in and watch. Many of the pilots from Rosenberg's study consistently conveyed why air combat was less frightening, and actually quite pleasurable: "We don't see dead bodies, wounded people, guys shot up... I never looked an individual in the eye and tried to kill him... It's a very distant thing." (1993:62). Such realizations should not come as much of a shock.

McLuhan argued that all meaning changes with the acceleration of information (1964:179), and Operation Desert Storm was most certainly an accelerated war. It was this sped-up and distanced engagement war's opponents found so problematic (and thus coded as unreal), and war's proponents found so satisfying (and thus reveled in the reality it had become). The vectors had all changed. Now, more than ever before, there was an insistence on rapid movement as a basic principle of strategy; as Napoleon once stated, space can be recovered, but time, never (McLuhan 1968:107). While other wars have had massive propaganda campaigns encouraging public support for nationalistic goals (indeed, that kind of campaigning has been a dominant motif throughout the entire history of war) the actual experience of battle was hardly as upbeat and bright as its print, photographic, cinematic, and especially cybernetic representation. With the war in the Gulf this dichotomy between spectating and participating collapsed, for both could be done simultaneously. Fighting, and its analogic and videographic reproduction had become a heck of a lot more fun, transforming the traditional horror associated with the prospect of premature death and destruction into something with very different, and far more entertaining, results, for those left living on the Western Front.


1. For more on the role of language in the justification of war see Lakoff (1991) and EJC (December 1991; particularly the essay "Purity and Gangrene: A Meditation on the Discourse of Bombs," by Steve Martinot).